Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who Needs Books?

This little booklet is the transcript of a lecture given for the Canadian Literature Centre as part of the Kreisel Lecture Series. At 49 pages, it is more than ideal for a coffee-talk or brief book club meeting. It is written (and was delivered) by Lynn Coady, author of Hellgoing and The Antagonist.
The premise is that books are at their marketable end and “who needs ‘em?” The fact that this essay was published as a book after being a lecture might head-off the reader where the author is going to go. The medium is indeed the message in this case.
Coady begins with relating her first introduction to an interactive metafiction.   The book in question was narrated by Grover, as in Sesame Street’s blue furry monster, who doesn’t want the young reader to make it to the end of the book, where there is a terrible monster.
The fact that this book celebrated the physical experience of moving through a book, engaging each page as the weight of the pages shift from the one side of the cover to the other, is just as important as the fact that this brilliant little book was based on a TV show. Wasn’t television seen as “the idiot box”, or the “natural enemy of books in the wilds of modern life”, as described (tongue-in-cheek) by Coady?  Does that one villainous fact outweigh the other virtues inherent in this book that so inspired young Coady?
It is important to point out that books did not disappear in the ensuing years after television.   Readers did not give up reading in order to only watch TV. Yet here we are, bemoaning again the loss of the book under the shadow of another medium. This time it is the Internet. Despite all the worry inspired by other well-established authors who are quoted in this treatise (Jonathan Franzen, Will Self), this anxiety has proven to have little foundation.
Coady offers perspective by quoting from an 1859 Scientific American article that finds the pervasiveness of a new hobby “an amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements.” The writer is lamenting about a preoccupation with the game of chess.
Chess did not supplant books. Nor did the printing press cause cathedrals to fall (another terrific citation found by Coady), but it did make people aware that spellings and grammar vary constantly, that language is always changing--or deteriorating, if you are a negative thinker. But the presses are still churning out physical books 577 years later. And stories are not born until they are received; read, heard, seen, felt in whatever form.
 Don't you need books?

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